What Should (and Shouldn’t) Be Said by Women Surgeons

Recently, the American College of Surgeons — our profession’s premier organization encompassing all surgical sub-specialties — launched its updated website. Included in this website are online communities where surgeons from around the country and even further away, can connect. In my interpretation of these communities, surgeons can connect over shared subspeciality topics (e.g., colorectal surgery, general surgery, orthopedic surgery), shared clinical interests (e.g., ethics, geriatric surgery, surgical safety), or shared circumstances (e.g., surgeons practicing in rural areas, newly trained surgeons, women surgeons.)

While perusing the women surgeons community, I came across a comment essentially chastising another surgeon for having posted an inquiry about managing pumping and maintaining breastfeeding with a busy operative schedule. Evidently, this woman surgeon thought that it was inappropriate to ask such a question in a forum of professional women. She was yearning for more “academic” topics it seems.

Let me be clear. Women surgeons, be it as clinicians, or teachers, or researchers, or business owners, or quite often as a complex combination of the above, are every bit as professionally capable as their male counterparts. However, while women surgeons might seek counsel, mentorship, and friendship from their male colleagues for academic and clinical needs, it is highly likely these colleagues just don’t have the perspective to advise on certain elephants in the room of a women surgeon’s career. Similarly, while women in many different careers share work-life balance and professional development concerns, many who are not surgeons simply will not have the perspective to give advice to women surgeons. So, I think it is great that women surgeons have a forum, provided to them by an esteemed professional organization, to come together in a way that is still not available in either their workplaces or their social circles where they are likely to have few women to bond with over shared professional and personal interests that are fairly unique to women surgeons.

For example, there may be subtle sexism in many professions. But what if that sexism emerges in a shared call room? Are there many other professionals (firefighters maybe?) who could relate to this surgeon’s experience and advise her on how to go about addressing the issue and making it stop?

It’s not uncommon for women to seek advice from other mothers when it comes to nursing. But can a woman surgeon whose friends outside of work largely hail from more office based professions get advice on where and when to pump with an erratic daily schedule and days with long OR cases?

Lots of mothers who work are often conflicted when their child has an important school event but they have to work. But who can speak to them about how gut wrenching it is to face the dilemma of a sick patient asleep on the table and a disappointed child at school?

The glass ceiling and about leaning in are applicable to women of all professions who seek to advance their careers. But can the ambitious women of Silicon Valley tech companies,  or DC’s K-street lobbying firms, or Wall Street’s banks advise women surgeons on how to lean in to bust through that ceiling?

And, despite the rising numbers of women in positions of leadership in the profession of surgery in recent years and the increasing gender balance in surgical training programs, women surgeons are still relatively few and far between. Thus, the technology of an online forum is a welcome way to for women surgeons to connect for all matters related to their work. And, yes how they structure their life around work (or as is in the case of pumping, during work) is just as important to discuss as professional issues. Some might argue that it is even more important to discuss these other issues as the other communities on the site might be well suited to a variety of professional concerns.

And so, I would argue that any woman surgeon should feel free to seek counsel from her virtual colleagues by saying any that is on her mind regarding her career or managing her life around such a demanding career. Meanwhile, her peers should feel free to say something in response if they have something constructive to say, even if it is constructive criticism (we’re surgeons; our skins are thick enough to take the good and the bad and learn from it). If they feel that the topic is not worthwhile, or that they have no experience with which to opine on the topic at hand, then they need not chime in.

But, no woman surgeon should ever say anything to another female surgeon to minimize that other woman’s concerns. She may not share the same concerns; but but we are already in a profession where it is sometimes hard to relate to our male peers at work or to find females to connect with outside of work, so we need to buoy each other up (because if we do this for one another consistently then someday we may not need a special online community for women surgeons) and be silent if we can’t or are unwilling to do so for our peers.